Born: April 28, 1936 Primary Instrument: Saxophone
By approaching jazz from a wide scope, Afro-Danish-American John Tchicai has been continuously progressive throughout his life. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1936, of a Danish mother and a Congolese father and growing up in healthy surroundings, John Martin Tchicai became a leading exponent of the jazz avant-garde in New York in the '60s and a father-figure for the European avant-garde after that. Now based in Davis, California, and Claira, France, by a single-mindedness of purpose and action, his work still reflects what he's always been doing, which is innovate and inspire other people, in a most refreshing way. The Danish ministry of Culture recognized his work by awarding him a lifetime grant.
John first began to play the violin as a child, and switched to the alto saxophone and clarinet at age 16. He studied with private teachers and attended the Conservatory of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, for two years. During the late '60s and early '70s, John began to play bamboo flutes, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone and some percussion, and when he discovered the tenor saxophone in the early '80s, he put the alto aside in favor of this, which has become his main instrument. John uses keyboards and sequencers as tools for composing.
In the late '50s and early '60s, John explored the Danish and Northern European jazz-scene. He moved to New York City in '62. In the following 4 years, he recorded on 11 albums (a.o. Mohawk, Ascension with John Coltrane, New York Eye and Ear Control with Albert Ayler), co-founded 2 ensembles (New York Contemporary Five and New York Art Quartet which was a harbinger of collective musical approaches and philosophies that leading avant-groups of the '70s would develop) that he toured Europe with, and was a member of The Jazz Composers Guild. He moved back to Denmark in '66 where he co-founded Cadentia Nova Danica, at one time a 30-piece ensemble which recorded Afrodisiaca. In the '70s, John discovered hatha yoga and meditation which became lifelong focusing points in his spiritual development. He performed less often in this period, but taught elementary schools, composed, and led workshops. By the '80s, he had picked up touring and recording internationally again, traveling through Europe, to India, Japan and Africa, performing as a sideman as well as leading his own groups. In 1991 John moved to California. Here he founded John Tchicai and the Archetypes, a 7-piece band that fused afro-jazz with blues-rock and released the album Love Is Touching. Currently, he teaches workshops in schools and in prisons, composes and works on new projects. He practices yoga, pranayama and meditation, and still tours internationally.
In 1966, Downbeat stated that John stands out among the jazz avant-garde, musically and personally. Official recognition has grown steadily for John. In '77, he was the first jazz-musician to receive a three year-composing stipend from the Danish Ministry of Culture, and in '90, he received a lifetime-grant from the same Ministry. In the U.S., he was a California Artist-in-Residence in '96-'97, and he was awarded a fellowship for composition by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.
John's compositional activity has always had a high priority in his work, as he strives to reach a balance between composition and improvisation. The music of other cultures (African, Oriental, etc.) has been a continuous inspiration, and John's work has a highly rhythmic and poetic melodic-lyrical quality. He composed for his own ensembles, but also on commissions for other jazz and/or classically trained ensembles: a.o. for wind-orchestra, for three celli + jazz quartet, for strings- and winds double quintet, for percussion ensemble and for symphony orchestra.
John worked with and is peer to the greats in the field of jazz music. To name but a few, he played with John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Johnny Dyani, Roswell Rudd, Albert Ayler, Dollar Brand, Makaya Ntshoko, Carla and Paul Bley, Misha Mengelberg, Lee Konitz, Cecil Taylor. He performed at festivals, conservatoria, in churches, schools and concert halls from Bombay and Kyoto in the East to Vancouver and Seattle in the West; from Conacry, Guinea, Africa in the South to Reykjavik, Iceland, in the North. Poetry and audience-participation are often part of a Tchicai-performance.
Not only did John record over 20 albums as a leader (with New York Contemporary Five, with New York Art Quartet, with Cadentia Nova Danica, with John Tchicai Trio, J.T. Group, duo's, with John Tchicai & the Archetypes), and many more as a sideman (with John Coltrane on Ascension, with Pierre Dorge & the New Jungle Orchestra, a Danish Ellington-African inspired big band, with South African bassist Johnny Dyani, with Faroe Islands-pianist Kristian Blak, with Dutch saxophone sextet The Six Winds, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and with Cecil Taylor on Winged Serpent), but he also took part in collaborations with artists of disciplines other than music (with poets Amiri Baraka, John Stewart, David Gitin, with painters, actors and dancers). He composed for film, theater plays and video-projects.
John utilizes available resources in a patient, positive way, whether it concerns improvisational or compositional material, instruments, time, space, energy or: people. His vast teaching experience was accumulated through working in elementary schools as a music teacher, teaching private lessons and international workshops for musicians of jazz, classical and other backgrounds, workshops in prisons and masterclasses at conservatories. His book for music students, Advice to Improvisers, which includes compositions and exercices for all instruments, was published in '87. It is available at the addresses listed in Orchestral compositions.
... big bones, amber tones and gentle moves... --Fred Bouchard, Jazz Times
... moved to New York in the mid-sixties and left a lasting impression... Keith Shadwick, The illustrated story of Jazz
... sax's great Dane, whose decidedly Cool, archly lyrical and ultimately enigmatic playing suggests the secretive smile of someone who knows something strange but good... --Richard C.Walls, The Boston Phoenix
... a veteran woodwind adventurer into musical outer space; his music exudes freedom... Philip Elwood, San Francisco Examiner
... his sound is cool, weightless, his style built on graceful, logical lines, and his writing can just as soon invoke Monk's angular logic and the blues as an African melody or rhythm.. --Fernando Gonzalez, The Boston Globe
... he hasn't spent the past 30 years playing standards... The piping warmth is so consistently present and his Berlin Ballad is heartbreakingly lyrical... --Reuben Jackson, Washington City Paper
... he sounds like a man who feels so deeply about an issue that he quietly and doggedly puts his own point of view until those vociferous disputants with more superficial beliefs move on... he sounds like a highly individual, architectural improviser who submerges himself into the group with self-effacement... will someone please bring John Tchicai to Britain for a tour? --Barry Witherden, WIRE
... belongs to the finest composers in contemporary jazz. His themes are melodically rich, rhythmically inventive note the frequent changes of meter and tempo and they shun the formal or harmonic clichŽs that even today's jazz writers seem to find so hard to avoid.... He's an improviser of astounding versatility, equally well versed in tackling standard song structures as in free improvisation, in group playing as in the art of the solo... The most intriguing and personal quality of John's playing on whatever instrument is his incredible ability to shape and vary the sound of his horn, ranging from minute timbre variations via tender ballad lushness to powerful dramatic gestures... --Peter N. Wilson, liner notes for Timo's Message
.. loping, soul-tinged jazz.. --Marc Weidenbaum, Sacramento News & Review
... Tchicai offers a large and diverse program, often within a single piece - his turns reveal the floating deliberation and melancholy passion that have always marked his unique concept... --Bob Blumenthal, The Boston Globe
...a forceful presence: his deep, inquisitive tone sounds wonderful, stately and reserved, while his mates swirl madly around him.... Tchicai is flying high and cool over the rhythm section's prancing and tumbling capers... --Jerome Wilson, Cadence
... silver-tongued ferocity, a stunning ability to express himself and a compelling sense of drama and dynamics... many people who find progressive music difficult and hard to appreciate would have delighted in this.. --Gamall Awad, California Jazz Now